Category Archives: 1980s

Demon Dogs! The Guilty Pleasures of Thundarr the Barbarian

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Demon Dogs! The Guilty Pleasures of Thundarr the Barbarian

Aaand tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1994.

Yes, in 1977 Star Wars blew our minds, but we also had Saturday mornings where shows were hit or miss. Many of us were a captive audience for the sake of catching the good stuff like Superfriends, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (more on that show later if you behave yourselves), and Thundarr the Barbarian.

Thundarr left the deepest imprint upon my head. Perhaps the ferocious and bold inventiveness of the show is what drew me in, but it also taught crucial lessons about loyalty, uniqueness as strength, standing up to oppression, and learning from your mistakes (without judgement). The show was also the king of the cliffhangers.

Thundarr plays marvelously with archetypes–the friendship of Thundarr-Ookla parallels with Gilgamesh-Enkindu, and the third character Princess Ariel as advisor and wisecracking sage corresponds with the powerful but independent Merlin. There was never overt sexual tension between this trio of wanderers–this was a show for tweens, after all–but the unwavering friendship between the three principal characters was encouraging for kids to see, because no matter who they ended up fighting and how insurmountable the obstacle, they left no one behind, regardless of gender or species. It was a good lesson in friendship for kids–stand up to bullies, and the struggle gives you strength.

The show is rich in still deeper thematic content–renewal. The world isn’t dying–it frickin’ died, from natural disaster (the runaway planet is a bit liberal in its hard-scientific plausibility), but two millennia later we rise phoenix-like into–well–you know (or you should know) the opening quote, a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery.

The familiar sites of the old world–The Statue of Liberty, The Hollywood Sign, The New York Public Library–these also immersed the viewers, rooting them in the familiar world while also challenging us to imagine a possible future, albeit shattered, with less comforts but much higher adventure and excitement. It was a worthwhile trade-off if one could fall in with the right crowd.

I remember this show as a celebration of diversity as strength rather than  weakness, of one’s actions being the determining factor of one’s fate and growth of character, and best of all, it celebrated the underdogs–the outsiders–as the true heroes of the healing landscape, and the fight against oppression (most often on the behalf of others under siege) seemed to make Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel stronger with every viewing.

It all comes down to empathy, emotional identification. I know that sounds naive and whimsical, but in a world where willful ignorance is prized and rewarded over justice and duty, I’ll take the escapism of this show any day of the fucking week. Case closed, bring on that runaway planet and split the moon evenly in half.

 

Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

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Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

Monsters.

So when my dad died I was five years old, and had precious little context to work with. I remember feeling numb, confused, unable to process the real implication of what it meant to lose a parent whom I’d barely gotten to really know. He’d been been sitting in his recliner one moment, and was gone the next, never to return. I stared out the window a lot, and watched the vultures congregate along the treeline ringing our house in Wauwinet (Nantucket, Massachusetts). I liked the vultures. They were the first birds I met. Carrion birds.

This memory stuck with me, however–my dad had told me something interesting about the image of King Kong breaking through his huge gate on Skull Island, where the natives scatter and Fay Wray, the intended sacrifice, writhes enchained, terrified by the “monster” raging in front of her. I identified with Kong immediately, because of what my dad had said: “He’s more afraid of them than they are of him.” And but hey let’s circle back to Ms. Wray a second here. The mere sight of this beauty enchants the beast, comforts him, allays his fear but does not compromise his strength (as we  see later in the jungles). This may have been the origins on my identification as female, but also the root of my blonde envy (I’m brunette). Here I took away a little something from both parties–identification with the beast, raging and powerful, and with beauty–passive, nurturing, forward-thinking, and yet somehow fateful, or even malignant. I think this is what one would call a paradox.

The recent passing of Keith Emerson (1944-2016) evoked memories of my initial gateway into a world of wonder when I needed it the most. Creature Double Feature [on Channel 56, for Boston] used the Emerson Lake & Palmer track “Toccata” [1973] as the ongoing theme song, and their creative edit of that percussive, diving synth tone made you think you were not only hearing a warning of a impending danger, but also an alien siren call, enticing you to the sticky web.

This show was the first exposure to speculative fiction for many of my generation, and I can only speak for myself when I tell you–finally it was so okay to be left alone.

Monsters became my escapism, actually a new sort of family. Monsters are outcasts but they’re also powerful as fuck, especially on a geopolitical level.

CDF tended to alternate their programming between a classic 1950s/1960s monster movie or a kaiju, a GIANT monster such as Godzilla or King Ghidorah. I was more captivated by kaiju than the “classic” monsters, perhaps because of their parallel with Kong. I must admit, many of these kaiju films don’t hold up very well anymore (often it takes forever to get the story rolling), but at least they made an impression on my young, impressionable brain.

The monsters are worth waiting for.

Best of all: combat between monsters. Sure, we’ll see the same city get squashed, but when monsters with unique, mutant characteristics and deadly biological weaponry do battle, it’s really fun to watch.

My CDF nostalgia runs deep–I’ll take the rubber suit and visible tethers over digital effects any day.

Alone in the Dark (1982)

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Martin Landau as Byron 'Preacher' Sutcliff

Martin Landau as Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff

“There are no crazy people, doctor. We’re all just on vacation.”
—Jack Palance as Frank Hawkes, “Alone in the Dark”

My first exposure to “Alone in the Dark” came from “Terror in the Aisles” (1984), a pseudo-documentary about the then-nascent 1980s horror boom and America’s cultural love of fear as pop-entertainment. “Terror” is essentially a compilation of horror clips interspersed with some adorable if dated commentary by Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen. “Terror” may not have stood the test of time, but it’s laudable for having been one of the first American feature-length documentaries to slice horror film up the belly and study the creamy filling (as in, ‘What makes this stuff tick?’)

One “Terror” clip intrigued me especially: a slowly cruising white van pursues a bike messenger. It is broad daylight on a quiet New Jersey residential street. A POV shot within the van reveals the stalkers from behind, silhouetted in darkness, the victim in their sights: “I want the hat…” someone says from the passenger seat.

The van nudges aggressively from behind the cyclist who then swerves and falters along the curb into dry autumn leaves. The random violence that unfolds from there is difficult to fathom, mostly due to the sheer randomness of the assault: the maniacs in the van want to kill, simply because that is what they enjoy during that particular moment.

Why? Why not?

“In the end [the villains] simply don’t distinguish between right and wrong.
Perhaps they don’t know the difference. Perhaps they just don’t care.”
—Donald Pleasance, “Terror in the Aisles”

The main story of “Alone in the Dark” involves a psychiatrist whose entire family endures a nighttime home invasion by a group of three escaped convicts during a citywide blackout. Doctor Dan Potter, played by Dwight Schultz (‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch of “A-Team” fame!), has taken a new post at “The Haven,” a beautiful manor converted into pysch-wards. We then meet the chief psychiatrist Dr. Leo Bain played by Donald Pleasence, and it soon becomes quite plain why he enjoys his work a little too much: he’s loopy as any of the patients, even the ones on “the third floor.”

Bain gives Potter a tour of the hospital, and explains the third-floor security system that keeps the “most dangerous” patients under lock and keycard: it is state-of-the-art, foolproof, and runs completely on electricity. And so Bain is an enormous fuckup—we can see where this is all going.

The third-floor patients are, in fact, even more ABC-List actors: Jack Palance, Phillip Clark, Erland van Lidth (Dynamo in “The Running Man”), and Martin Landau. Once Bain introduces Dr. Potter to this tribe, their reactions range from cold to hyper-aggressive. Their previous doctor, Harry Merton, had apparently earned their trust and reliance, and they see this newcomer as a disruption at first, then they conclude in a paranoid reverie that Potter has murdered Merton, and will soon murder each of them. They decide to retaliate, to counterattack at the first opportunity.

This sets into motion one of the most enjoyable horror classics of the 80s “slasher” era. At turns subtle, hilarious, self-consciously low-budget, genre-baiting (especially during the babysitter scene), and gleefully excessive, “Alone in the Dark” is definitely worth seeking out. There is even an amazing music club sequence brought to you by the real New York horror-punk band The Sick F*cks (which included Snooky and Tish Bellomo, the two founders of Manic Panic).

Donald Pleasence plays Dr. Bain like a deer in the headlights, and yet with an adorable enthusiasm, as if he’s channeling the screenwriter/director (which makes sense, since this was Jack Sholder’s feature film debut).

But highest praise is due for Martin Landau’s portrayal of the Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff. There are completely deranged psychopaths in horror film, and then there are totally rabid, post-Aftermath, Defcon-One hell-toads full of malignancy, wrath, and flair. Landau gets the hat.

CAUTION:

Do your utmost best to steer clear of Uwe Boll’s “Alone in the Dark” (2005), which is not a remake.

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